The Amphitheater Public Schools district is reviewing its rental relationship with a local religious organization that more than 20 former followers have described as a cult.
The district recently launched an investigation after it received three complaints about Faith Christian Church’s rental of the Amphitheater High School auditorium for its Sunday services, general counsel Todd Jaeger said.
The rental contract expires in late June. The church pays the district about $51,000 a year.
Amphi High’s principal, Jonathan Lansa, is a member of Faith Christian and allowed the church to bend the district’s rental rules, current and former employees said in recent interviews with the Arizona Daily Star.
The Star interviewed four former and two current employees. The current employees asked not to be named for fear their jobs would be jeopardized.
Former employees said Lansa’s oversight of the rental agreement caused friction with their boss and made them feel there was nowhere to air concerns when the church’s activities caused problems for students. That happened regularly when church members moved equipment and furniture, leaving students to clean it up, a former teacher said.
Lansa, 39, joined the church in 1995 and has served on its board of directors since 2010, public records show. Jaeger said Faith Christian started renting the high school before Lansa became principal in mid-2011, but he wouldn’t be more specific.
Ex-employees say Lansa displayed his faith on the job, holding prayer meetings on-site with other Faith Christian members who work at Amphi High. The sessions took place in the morning while employees were on the clock but before students arrived, they said.
Lansa has not responded to the Star’s questions about his leadership. “Lots of misinformation is involved in the allegations” he wrote in an April 18 email to Star management, but he did not elaborate and didn’t respond to a request to provide specifics. A few days later, he sent a follow-up email saying he has been advised not to comment because of the district’s pending investigation.
Taxpayers who recently complained about the rental agreement raised concerns about the church’s practices as described in recent Star reports. Jaeger wouldn’t specify what the district’s investigation will cover and whether it is being done in-house or by an outside entity.
called a cult
In the Star’s investigation, published last month, 21 former employees and members of Faith Christian Church and nine of their parents described Faith Christian as a cult that aggressively recruits college students and encourages them to cut ties with family members and friends outside the church.
They said the church promotes spanking of babies that show a “rebellious spirit” and exerts excessive control over members’ lives and finances.
The UA’s University Religious Council, after reviewing the allegations, recently voted unanimously to cut ties with Faith Christian and its affiliated UA student groups.
Lansa is a founder and adviser for one of the UA student groups, Native Nations in Christ, that was ousted from the religious council.
“The number, seriousness and pattern of red flags raised compel (council) members to no longer believe that Faith Christian Church and its affiliates operate at the highest level of integrity, transparency, safety for students, and respect for students,” said a statement released by the religious council after the vote.
The UA’s dean of students also is investigating 29 complaints from parents and from UA alumni who were members or worked for the church.
Amphi district officials have long known about Lansa’s connection to the church, his personnel file shows. The file, obtained by the Star through a public records request, shows Lansa has used Faith Christian’s leader, pastor Stephen M. Hall, as a personal reference at least six times since 1998, when he initially applied for a teaching job, and later when he sought promotions.
Lansa’s personnel file also shows he has received high marks on the job.
“Mr. Lansa did an excellent job of beginning a ‘turn around’ process at AHS!,” wrote Patrick Nelson, then an associate superintendent, in a 2012 performance evaluation. Nelson, now the district’s superintendent, credits Lansa with helping the high school shed a D rating from the state and obtain a C rating within a year as Amphi’s principal. The school now has a B rating.
Says concerns ignored
Chelsea Farrar, a former Amphi High art and theater teacher who quit the school last year, says Lansa repeatedly ignored her concerns that his church’s actions were causing problems for her students taking technical theater training funded by Pima County’s Joint Technical Education District.
Farrar, who now works at the UA’s art museum, says those students lost about an hour of classroom instruction time on many Monday mornings.
They had to reset the auditorium’s lighting and sound systems and reassemble stage sets that church leaders had moved or tinkered with to accommodate the Sunday worship service, she said.
When she complained to Lansa, “He would say ‘I hear you; I’ll fix it,’ and then nothing happened.
“It was frustrating for the students. I had to tell them that we were going to have to live with the problem, unfortunately.”
Sheri Gimlin, who worked 17 years for the Amphi district as a computer technician, including three at Amphi High, recalls being in a classroom adjoining the auditorium on a Monday morning and seeing theater students upset because the stage area was in disarray.
“What a mess. The students were running around trying to get everything back in order for a play that was supposed to start,” said Gimlin, who left the school about six months after Lansa arrived. She now works for Banner-University Medical Center.
Faith Christian Church’s lease with the Amphi district says “no lighting, wiring or scenery is to be changed except by special written permission from the principal of the school” and when permission is granted, “such lighting, wiring or scenery must be replaced as directed at the expense of the party requesting the change.”
Greg D’Anna, a spokesman for the county’s joint technical education district, which provides funding to area schools for career and technical education, said the claim that student learning was compromised is troubling but said the theater technician program at Amphi High was discontinued before this school year began.
Besides renting the Amphi High auditorium, Faith Christian also uses four adjoining classrooms to hold Sunday school classes.
That sometimes caused other problems, employees said. Classroom furniture was moved around and occasionally damaged, and Bibles were left behind in classrooms at least three times, Farrar recalled.
Gimlin says not long after she started in Amphi High, she happened upon Lansa locked inside the auditorium one morning holding a prayer meeting with several members of his church who also work at the school. A performance group had arrived to set up for a student event, and Gimlin found a custodian to unlock the auditorium door for the performers.
She said Lansa emerged from the auditorium and shooed the group away.
“He said, ‘We’re praying in here, and you can’t come in until we’re done,’ ” Gimlin recalls. “He made everyone wait outside for 15 minutes until they were finished.”
Gimlin says she met with Jaeger, the district’s lawyer, to share her concerns about Lansa’s leadership.
Jaeger told the Star he recalls the conversation differently but said he couldn’t say more without a written release from Gimlin.
Rolande Baker, a former special-education teacher at Amphi High, says she met with Nelson, the district superintendent, before she retired in 2013 and told Nelson she was leaving a year early because of Lansa. Nelson also told the Star he couldn’t comment on their conversation without written permission from Baker.
Baker says tensions developed between employees who were members of Faith Christian and those who weren’t as perception spread that church members were more valued by the principal than other employees.
“In all my years of teaching, I never dreaded going to work until I started working for Jon Lansa,” said Baker, who taught special education at Sunnyside High School for 11 years before she came to Amphi High in 2011.
John Keepers, who taught social studies at Amphi High from 2002 to 2012, says he complained to an assistant principal about fliers around the school that seemed religious in nature. The fliers told students they could discover “the meaning of life” by coming to after-hours meetings on campus, he said.
Keepers says he doesn’t know who posted the fliers. He says he was told they were OK because “it’s a freedom of speech issue.”
Keepers, the son and grandson of evangelical Christian pastors, is one of the taxpayers who complained in writing to the Amphi district about its lease with Faith Christian Church. Jaeger, the district’s legal counsel, said in a written response to Keepers that the district’s hands were tied because of constitutional issues.
He cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says when school districts rent their facilities after-hours, they can’t discriminate against religious groups or suppress their right to free speech.
The district could stop renting out the high school altogether, Jaeger wrote to Keepers, but that wouldn’t be fair to taxpayers who “expect that the community which paid for our facilities should be able to make use of them.”